Make Basic Shelves look like Built-Ins!


livingroom and library.jpgI’m no carpenter, but I’m a bit of a book nerd. I love books and I have lots of them, so many in fact that I usually set up a library somewhere in the house. At my last house I had built-ins installed along one wall in the den which had cost me over $3000.  We’ve been in this house for two years and I’ve pretty much re-constructed the main floor by opening up the livingroom and diningroom and gutting the kitchen.  So I didn’t feel like spending more money for built-ins and I already had 4 Ikeas shelving units acting as stand-ins. You can see the shelves in their “before” state on the post I wrote on styling shelves  Two Simple Methods to Styling Shelves Like a Pro .

This livingroom layout was a little different than I’ve encountered, in that it’s more narrow and long than wide. This room is great for entertaining because it’s large enough to cruise around, especially in combination with the dining room. Here is the Living room and Library floor plan. As you can see the layout is set up for conversation.

Slide1I like having a living room because it’s a room to entertain in which no television watching is allowed. The living room  is a place for that old-fashion ideal of conversation and the adjacent dining room has a bar where all the booze is housed (this usually lures them in). When the living room is not in use for entertaining purposes, which is more often than not, it’s the perfect space for some quiet time.  The living room is a good choice for a double duty function such as a library.

Last weekend I took my shelving unit measurements to the home improvement store and chose wood trim and had them cut to the sizes I needed. I bought a few tools I needed and drove all my wares home.  I was all set to start my little DIY project, or so I thought. About two hours into my “little” project I was becoming frustrated with the one thing I had not counted on – walls that were not plumb. I’ve renovated fourteen of my own homes, you would think I was expecting this. OK, when I say “I” renovated I mean most of the hard work was done by contractors, but this was pre-divorce so there was more money and the ex was pretty handy guy too.

What was supposed to be a couple of hours work turned into the better part of two days, which includes drying time and my perfectionist style. Having the couch in the center meant I needed to install a gable end on each side to beef up and cover up the shelf height extension. This is where the trouble began.  The ceiling and walls are not plumb. Shims became my best friends. Truly, I can’t believe a whole bundle of cedar shims are less than $4. Another item that became near and dear to my heart is wood filler. It even comes in white now!  And, lastly paint hides all sorts of booboos.

The Materials List:

  • Five different trim profiles for header, toe kick, vertical gap trim, shelves and gap between header and top shelf.
  • Finished End gables, if applicable.
  • Shims
  • Mitre saw.  Preferably electric (it will really make you feel like a carpenter too)
  • Drill and bits.
  • Large level.
  • Measuring tape.
  • Exacto knife, mostly for the shims.
  • Small crowbar.
  • Hammers.  It’s good to have a fine finishing nails hammer too.
  • Nail Driver.
  • Clamps
  • Steel blade spreader to even out the wood filler.
  • Construction or No more Nails glue.
  • Sand pad or sand paper.
  • Nails. I used one and a quarter inch long.
  • Wood filler. Use a color that makes it easier to finish with paint or stain.
  • Caulking. Use sparingly. It’s a living room not a kitchen or bathroom.

Here’s the step by step Maggie’s way of constructing a built-in out of basic stock shelving units:

Step one is optional. I wanted the shelving unit backer to match the dining room walls so I painted it the same Mediterranean Blue on the shelf backer board. You can paint or wallpaper.  I love adding color or pattern to the backer because it’s an easy instant decor element.

2. Remove baseboards so the shelving unit can sit flush on the walls.

3. Adhere side gables. Use glue and a few finishing nails. This is where the shims may come in handy to prop up the unit so it sits plum.  Use clamps to stabilize the gables until the glue dries. I bought solid white melamine gables which means there are no pre-drilled holes and requires no painting.

4. Using the gable and wall as well as the top shelf secure the header (the top piece of the shelf that comes in to contact with the ceiling).  If your shelf is wider than 3ft you will have to add more structural support in the center with another piece of lumber.

5. If you have two units bind them together with glue and screws. Cover the two gable ends with decorative trim of your choice. To save time, I tried to buy primed wood trim, but not all wood profiles come primed. My intension was to paint the unit all along, so I bought paint grade trim where I could, which costs less. If you want to stain the wood make sure you buy the appropriate wood species like oak or mahogany.

Tip: Pre-drill holes. It speeds up the process and there is less risk of splitting the wood.

6. Continue with adding decorative trim over the wall and shelving unit gap as well as the other two gables on the opposite side.

7. Cover the top shelf and header gap with trim.  I used glue and finishing nails to secure the top trim.

8. Add a quarter round version of trim at where the toe kicker part of the shelf unit meets the floor. Again use glue and finishing nails to secure.

9. I used simple trim which is a half inch wider than the existing shelves. I had to cut twenty five of these to the shelf width. If you have an electric mitre saw this goes pretty smoothly.

10. Counter sink and fill all nail holes.  Wood filler can shrink so look for this and add  a little bit more wood filler after the first application dries. Sand lightly once the holes are dry. Continue to fill any visible gaps.

counter sink nails

11. Lightly sand trim where you intend to paint. With a damp cloth wipe down all the sanded surfaces.

12. Prime and Paint.

I also added art sconces to illuminate each side of the shelf. These were  inexpensive and they are battery powered LEDs.  I found these lights at an art store.

You’re done! And you can boast you did it yourself.

This is not a difficult project but it does take time to do it properly, a lot more time than I thought.  It was worth it though.






6 thoughts on “Make Basic Shelves look like Built-Ins!

  1. This is brilliant! I love your colours and you made it so doable. I also like how you made working through the project ‘real’ by sharing your frustration with the walls not being plumb. I am not sure if I will tackle this project but you never know??? Pinning so I can refer back to it!

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